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Pitt offense stalls in ugly 47-43 loss to Badgers

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

That was pretty much my immediate thought as Pitt's basketball team crapped away a double-digit lead against a Wisconsin team that was beyond struggling in an ugly 47-43 game. Pitt gave themselves a chance to win late as a Jamel Artis three-pointer cut the lead to one. After a missed shot by Wisconsin at the other end, James Robinson got the ball with about ten seconds remaining. Driving the length of the floor, he ran into teammate Michael Young, missing the shot, and ending the Panthers' season.

We've seen blown leads before but this one was of epic proportions. This tweet stood out to me and was mandatory reading if you needed an idea of how big Pitt's lead was in terms of the overall game.

Think about that for a second - the Panthers had a lead larger than 25% of the opposing team's total number of points and still found a way to come up short. Essentially, that's like blowing a 20+ point lead in a game where the scoring hits 80.

In the gamethread, I remarked that because of the low-scoring nature of the game in the first half, that Pitt's 10-point lead at the time really felt like it was bigger. To have a 12-point lead in a game that had a total of 90 points and come away as the loser is just something that's very hard to do. So, how did they do it?

Glad you asked.

Pitt used an unseemly combination of offensive ineptitude, a lack of rebounding, and benefited from getting to the free throw line. For as bad as the Badgers were from the field (32%), Pitt wasn't much better making only 37% of their shots. They also lost the rebounding battle despite the Badgers missing so much from the field.

To the free throws, this isn't one of those games where you blame the refs for the loss to me and if you can't beat an opponent that scores only 47 points, I'm not sure how much of a gripe you can have. But in a game where offense was at a premium, the Badgers getting to the line more than twice what the Panthers did (15 to seven, to be exact) is just a big deal. Wisconsin had five more made free throws than Pitt as a result and, in a four-point low-scoring game, it's evident just how important those were.

A little more on Pitt's offense because it's important. Robinson led the team with 14 shots but struggled, shooting only 3-14 from the field. Artis got ten shots, but Young shot only seven times and was mostly contained. Since conference play began, that was easily the fewest attempts Young has had and his six points were a season-low. I don't understand why Pitt didn't go more to him or why he wasn't more involved. It made little sense given not only the importance of the game but how much Pitt desperately needed offense. Unless he's on fire, Robinson shooting 14 times just doesn't help the team very much and he ended up taking nearly 30% of the team's total shots. Just a really bad idea, folks.

This is hardly a bash James sentiment - Robinson, after all, was actually the team's best rebounder, pulling in 11 boards. Rather, it's a look into just how different the offense was tonight than it had been the rest of the year. Things weren't different in the sense that they struggled because fans have seen this dance all year long. But it was certainly different in that Young was not nearly as big of a focal point as he typically is. Why he wasn't more involved is something Jamie Dixon and company need to figure out afterwards.

What made the game particularly hard to watch was that despite not shooting all that well themselves in the first half, Pitt was easily in control of the game in the first half. A late Wisconsin run closed it to within six at halftime and if that didn't give them life, I don't know what would. To play as poorly as the Badgers did in those opening 20 minutes, as I mentioned either in the gamethread or on Twitter tonight, that had to be a win for them.

Really, Pitt had this game on a silver platter. A double-digit lead against a team that shot 32% from the field and scored 47 points should result in a guaranteed win. That the Panthers lost this game was ... alarming and, well, frustrating. If Wisconsin came out and played a good game and Pitt was just outplayed, that would be one thing. But with the built-in lead, the Badgers basically dared Pitt to take the game.

A big problem for the team all year has been the inability to extend leads. I've written about that on more than one occasion and it doomed the team today. Pitt had a nearly six-minute streak in the first half with a big lead where they scored a total of three points. They scored only six points in a nearly 12-minute stretch spanning practically the final seven minutes of the first half and first five of the second. That's just not a winning formula and, as nearly any team with a pulse would do, Wisconsin took advantage, grabbed the lead, and eventually, won the game.

One thing that puzzled me and, just about every reasonable Pitt fan, was the lack of Ryan Luther combined with Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Rafael Maia playing a lot. That duo combined for 27 minutes and didn't exactly reward Dixon for playing so much with a combined zero points and six rebounds. Luther, who has easily outplayed that duo this season, finished with only four minutes, despite averaging about 20 in the past two games.

With Pitt needing offense, it made sense to play Luther a lot more in this game. He was not only playing a lot lately (he played in double digit minutes every game except one dating all the way back to January 19th), but playing extremely well. That he only got a few minutes in this one was puzzling. That he only got a few minutes when Pitt needed a scorer looks even more egregious. It will be interesting to see if he was injured or if Dixon explains his lack of use after the game when the team could have used him without question. What I hope wasn't the case was those guys getting minutes because they are seniors. If healthy and it wasn't a disciplinary situation, Luther should have been the guy in there.

One more thought here with the season wrapping up. A few weeks ago, Dixon said that the team was playing its best basketball of the year. But in reality, things ended as sour as they possibly could have. Pitt lost its final two road games of the year against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, and sandwiched a narrow win against Syracuse with ugly losses against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament and tonight's disaster. Losing four of five games shows that the team either checked out or really wasn't all there. I don't think it was the former as you saw a decent effort sometimes, but it's clear that they didn't match the intensity of their opponents down the stretch.

Overall, just a sad way to end the season. And in closing, in case you'd forgotten, this was the second straight dud from the team in the NCAA Tournament:

But hey, see you next year!

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